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Can solar panels survive cuts to the Feed-in Tariff?

With the government reviewing Feed-in Tariffs (FiT) and the sun so low in the sky, the idea of installing solar panels will be far from most consumers’ minds at the moment – but is the government review the end of a short-lived boost for domestic energy generation?

At Consumer Focus, we think not.  Our new report ‘Keeping FiT’ brings together research by the Energy Saving Trust on consumer attitudes and our own consumer satisfaction survey, and there is enough to give us hope.

  • Solar panels are still in the early adopter stage, and these early adopters are not driven by short-term payback but consider panels to be a long-term investment.
  • These early adopters also tend to pay from savings, and the government’s proposed return on investment of 4.5% could still look attractive – particularly if they think energy prices will continue to rise.
  • Reported customer satisfaction levels are high, through the advice, sales and installation stages, and these early adopters are sharing their lessons with others.

But how can the market grow beyond this group of early adopters, whilst limiting the impact on energy consumers’ bills?

We’ve put a range of recommendations to government on how the scheme can be improved; including options to remove the upfront cost barrier, help home-sellers and estate agents communicate the value of solar panels, and improve the Feed-in Tariff registration process.

In the meantime, a quick google of ‘feed-in tariffs’ suggests that there are some potentially attractive offers available.

Plans to introduce energy efficiency eligibility criteria and the potential for further changes to the tariff for people who install after April 2012 may prompt some to take action before then.

So what do any prospective solar energy consumers need to learn from those who’ve gone before them?  Our survey says:

  •  Shop around – talk to people who have already installed panels, but also get three or more quotes.  Pricing could be erratic in the coming months as installers respond to the government review.
  • Check companies’ claims of Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) registration via the MCS website.
  •  Know and act on your rights– the industry’s Consumer Code, REAL Assurance, has produced a useful list of Top Tips for buyers.
  • Before you sign a contract or pay a deposit, require the company to provide a performance estimate specific to your property, a breakdown of costs, and ensure it is all-inclusive
  • Never pay more than 25 per cent of the contract price upfront
  • Check you have the right to cancel the contract within seven days with no penalty, and do not sign a waiver

But the most important message to government, industry and consumers is that mis-selling continues, and must be tackled.

Some hope that the proposed reduction in tariffs will see ‘rogue traders’ leave the market, but tougher protections are needed across energy-related services.

And the final word is to consumers: please report mis-selling to REAL Assurance; if it feels like pressure selling, it is.